This newly released film looks set to do well in the Award Season, especially at the UK BAFTAS, having already won a Golden Globe for its star. It does posses a lot of the qualities that have pleased the BAFTA membership, including the fine acting that so frequently graces British films. However, despite a dramatic and ultimately feel-good real-life story as a basis, it rather fails to engage. I think the problems lies in the scripting and direction, as the production values are pretty good.
The film seems to be inhibited by that sense of ‘good taste’ that is so common in British films. To give one example [which as it is a recorded event is hardly a plot spoiler], late in the film Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. We see the fore and after but not the actual event, which feels like an anti-climax. The same decorum also inhibits the sexual relations which are an important part of the story.
The film also suffers from a common problem with biopics – how to convey complex ideas without becoming complicated. One way used in this production occurs at the film’s end. The plot is reversed in a brief and rapid montage: a sort of mini-Benjamin Button. One can guess at the intended relationship to Stephen Hawkins’s famous work on Time: but it feels facile. The film is taken from the memoir by Jane: whilst the film shows her engaging with Stephen’s theorising the focus is personal rather than scientific.
But what the film really lacks is intensity. It crosses over in some ways with two earlier films – My Left Foot (UK 1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (US/France 2007). But those films not only enjoy fine lead performances, they also generate a sense of emotion that seems to engage most audiences. I rather think this film fails on that account.
In the last few years, January has become a desert as far as diversity in UK cinemas is concerned. The US/UK ‘awards films’ fill all the specialised cinema screens that would usually take a major foreign language film release. Distributors are discouraged from competition with Hollywood and mainstream independent distributors. So, currently, 12 Years a Slave (eOne), American Hustle (Columbia/Entertainment) and Gravity (Warner Bros) are still in cinemas alongside The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal). Dallas Buyers’ Club (Universal) and Her (Warner Bros/Entertainment) are to open soon. We did get The Missing Picture the Cambodian entry for Foreign Language film (in French) a couple of weeks ago but only in a very small number of cinemas and the Palestinian entry Omar has not yet been released in the UK.
I’ve complained about this before but it is getting worse and as Charles Gant reported in Sight and Sound (February), 2013 was the worst year for foreign language films at the UK box office since he started monitoring data in 2007. I genuinely fear that we are going to lose the audience for these films. The two most dynamic film industries in the world in terms of production and domestic success in 2013 are China and South Korea. When was the last time you saw a Chinese or Korean film at the cinema? I should point out that both exhibitors and distributors are part of the problem, but both are likely to rely on perceptions of what audiences want. Where do these perceptions come from? If younger audiences have never had the chance to see foreign language films how can they form a view about them?
It’s very important to support any foreign language films you can find on release. We do get regular South Asian films in our multiplexes but they remain ghettoised. Please, please go and see what is on offer. I’m hoping to catch a Pakistani film today and a Chinese film on Tuesday (a special screening at Cornerhouse by the indispensable Chinese Film Forum UK). I’m also looking forward to tonight’s last two episodes of The Bridge on BBC4. The popularity of foreign language drama on UK TV is one of the few pluses at the moment.
February should bring the new Claire Denis film Bastards and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best – while the former is most likely to attract devotees, the latter sounds like a return to more accessible filmmaking. I’m sure both will feature on the blog and I hope they find their audiences in cinemas.
There has been much coverage of the Film Awards season in the media: The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild, The BAFTAS, and The Academy Awards. The last two have yet to arrive, but there is already an amount of speculation, and apparently betting. Most of the media only discuss the major awards: credit though to BBC2’s Newsnight which had short interviews with the filmmakers involved in two ‘minor’ awards – Best Documentary Feature – “The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer and Best Documentary Short Subject – “Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
Some critics like Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian already fear that ‘the best film will not win’. Which raises the question ‘whose best film’? None of my favourites for the year received a nomination; not surprising. Only one film in the Sight & Sound (January, 2014) top ten in its list for the year made it into the major awards. Of the other main contenders only 12 Years a Slave managed a position, at joint fourteen. The nominations, with the exceptions of the Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short Film, Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film, are all taken from mainstream Box Office successes. In fact, the general audience have presumably already voted at the Box Office. And as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian pointed out, there is an observable gap between the Box Office choice and that of the Academy members.
What is more worrying about the Academy members’ choices is on what basis they choose. Peter Bradshaw bemoaned that not all the members would watch the nominated films on the DVDs provided. I rather think they have now moved on to Blu-Ray. Whatever, this is not strictly film and certainly not cinema. I suspect that a large number of votes at the Screen Actors’ Guild, the BAFTAS and the Oscars will be based on watching video. Of course, it may be high definition and it may be on 50 inch Television or Plasma screens. One assumes that the Foreign Press Association do actually watch films at the cinema.
I did. On the day that the Oscar nominations were announced I went to see Nairobi a Half Life (Kenya, 2012), a film proposed for the Academy’s awards but which did not manage a nomination in the Foreign Language Film category. It is an uneven film but I thought it better than at least one title in the Sight & Sound list. My enjoyment was partly fuelled by the gasps etc by fellow audience members at moments of tension and our shared laughter at the macabre but witty moments. Watching it on video would be only half the experience.
Last year’s inaugural European Features Competition featured six films by debutant directors. This year there were another three first-timers plus three established filmmakers. Again the six films have not achieved UK distribution and Festival Director Tom Vincent told us at the award ceremony that this was the chief aim of the prize – to highlight films that UK distributors had missed and should perhaps reconsider. The festival brochure doesn’t tell us what the judging criteria are – which strikes me as problematic. There were three jurors: Stephanie Bunbury is a film journalist from Australia, Hannah McGill is well-known in the UK as one-time director of the Edinburg International Film Festival and is now a critic and film journalist and Martijn Maria Smits is a writer-director from the Netherlands.
As far as I’m aware, the three judges saw all six films at the beginning of the festival and none of them were present at the announcement on Sunday evening. It seems to me that operating in this way, the judges will not have had any sense of how audiences reacted to the films. I wonder therefore if they will have judged the films on the basis of their appeal as ‘festival films’. By this I mean a film that appeals directly to festival professionals and audiences who seek out festivals rather than to a mainstream or arthouse audience. People generally watch films differently in festivals I think.
I thought before the official announcement that the judges may well choose Kill Me directed by Emily Atef. This was the only one of the six entries that I hadn’t blogged on – for the simple reason that I had missed the opening 15-20 minutes and I didn’t want to comment without seeing the whole film. Emily Atef has won several festival prizes for her work and I thought her film would appeal most to the judges. My guess proved correct and though the director wasn’t present, the young star of the film Maria Dragus had flown into Bradford specially. She was clearly delighted that the film won the prize. I had planned to watch the opening of the film so I stayed on for the screening – knowing I would have to leave after about 30 minutes for a meeting. Unfortunately, I was sat directly in front of Ms Dragus so I hope she wasn’t offended when I sneaked out. Now I’ve seen the whole film I will write it up, but if you are wondering, it offers the unlikely pairing of a teenage girl on a farm in Germany who runs off with an escaped prisoner. The odd couple has an uneasy relationship which is explored in a form of ‘road movie’.
Apart from Kill Me, there was a ‘special mention’ of A Night Too Young and its director Olmo Omerzu was present. The young boy’s face in that film with its young/old appearance will stay with me for some time and I certainly support the judges in singling out a film and a filmmaker that both deserve more attention. All six films in the competition were worth consideration for wider distribution and it was a strong field. The award this year was sponsored by ‘Bradford First UNESCO City of Film’ and its director David Wilson presented it to Maria Dragus. I think the ideas behind the award are very good and it is something that BIFF could build on, but to actually convince a distributor to take up any of these films in the UK is going to require more – perhaps several festivals could combine to give European films more focus. The New British Cinema Quarterly scheme sees a package of British films getting a limited release. How about a New European Cinema Quarterly? Britain is the toughest market in Europe for ‘European’ films so anything might help. But for now, let’s celebrate the European Features Award. Kill Me review to follow.